Occupied Territory: Why Chicago’s History Matters for Today’s Demands to Defund Police

On the latest episode of Intercepted, historian Simon Balto discussed his new book and the origins of Chicago police as a moralistic enforcement agency.

View of five policemen and one soldier with a rifle, standing on a street corner during a race riot in the Douglas community area of Chicago, Illinois, circa 1919.
Chicago police officers and a soldier with the Illinois National Guard on a South Side street corner during the 1919 riot. Photo: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

Protests, marches, and demonstrations against police violence and systemic racism are continuing across the United States, as calls to defund the police and abolish the prison system are intensifying. The crucial leadership of the Movement for Black Lives has brought these issues to an international stage. The resilience of these activists is a sight to behold, to emulate, and to be grateful for.

As activists and some lawmakers ramp up campaigns to defund police in cities across the United States, it is important to analyze some broad historical questions about the mission and culture behind policing. Why do we have police in this country? Why are they organized, armed, and deployed in the ways that they are? How did police achieve so much political power? And how have police forces been used to defend the interests of the elite, crush organized labor, and rain terror on Black, brown, and poor communities? On the latest episode of Intercepted, we decided to examine these questions by taking an in-depth look at the origins and history of one of the most notorious and racist police forces in this country — the Chicago Police Department — with historian Simon Balto, a Black studies professor at the University of Iowa.

Image: Courtesy UNC Press
Balto’s new book, “Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago From Red Summer to Black Power” is a brilliant work of scholarship that chronicles the history of the Chicago Police Department from the mid-1800s to the 1970s. “Occupied Territory” uses primary source documents and testimonials to give lie to some of the most pernicious and ill-informed characterizations made about Black people and communities in the United States, including by powerful political and media figures. At the same time, the book lays out the origins of the Chicago police as a moralistic enforcement agency, established by white politicians and land and business owners with the primary aim of policing the behavior of European immigrants who were largely Irish and German. As Chicago’s Black population began to grow rapidly, the police was swiftly transformed into a militarized terror force. Cops systematically and violently trapped Black Chicagoans in poverty. They facilitated the use of Black communities as drug-infested business centers for white organized crime gangs, including Al Capone’s operation. And they crushed movements for workers’ rights, tenants rights, and basic human rights. The book also tells the often suppressed history of Black political organizing and rebellion in Chicago and offers lessons on how this history speaks to the demands and struggles of the present moment.

On Intercepted, we aired an excerpt of our conversation with Balto. What follows is a transcript of the extended interview, lightly edited for clarity.

JS: Simon Balto, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.

SB: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

JS: So I want to begin by going pretty far back in U.S. history and, in a general sense, just talk about how police came to be in the United States. What are the early origins of the idea of city police forces in the U.S.?

SB: It’s a complicated question in the sense that it varies somewhat depending on the location. So, I think that the important thing to understand though regardless of where we are looking is that the idea that the police exist primarily to keep a generic “public” safe is something of an invention. So, if we’re looking at the origins of the police, they primarily were implemented to do one or both of two things, and that is to preserve economic hierarchy or to preserve racial hierarchy. So, let me map out a little bit of what that looks like. In a number of southern cities, the early police forces either grow directly out of, or overlap significantly with, early slave patrols.

So, in other words, some of the original police mission in those places is to surveil and contain and control Black people who are trying to commit the crime of freeing themselves. In other places, though, it looks a little different. So, in a city like Chicago, for example, the early police department is developed primarily by elite business owners in the city with the primary purpose of controlling immigrant behavior that they deem to be unruly and just undesirable. They were especially concerned with the drinking habits of German and Irish immigrants. But their other primary purpose was to suppress labor militancy. So one of the early purposes of the CPD is to make sure that workers who are trying to strike for an 8-hour workday or to better their working conditions, the police force is deployed to suppress them. And it depends on the context in terms of where we’re looking, but I think it’s important for people to understand that when people first founded these police departments, they were not designed to promote some sort of public safety. They were designed with very specific political repressions in mind. And actually what’s funny to me is that, back when police departments were first being implemented, in a lot of places they were seen as anti-American.


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The case of New York is actually really instructive here. So, when the New York police department is first implemented in, I believe it’s the 1840s when New York first gets its force. Chicago’s not until 1853. But in the 1840s, New Yorkers actively resisted the implementation of a New York police department and the reason that they did so was that the generational memory of having the city be occupied by British forces during the Revolutionary War, the police department reminded people of those occupying forces. And so people decried the implementation of a police department as antithetical to the American vision of independence and liberty. And so it’s interesting to think about in 2020, how the police really originated in order to protect hierarchy and were actively resisted by people when they were first being put into place.

JS: Let’s back up because one of the things that you do in this really remarkable book is you tell the story of how the demographics in Chicago were shaped, as the age of industrialization really took hold in the United States. Just paint a bit of a picture for us of how Black people ended up coming to Chicago in large numbers, when they did, and who was there building up the city at the time Black people started to settle in Chicago.

SB: Yeah, I mean Chicago is very much a classic city of immigrants that during the second half of the 1800s you have a lot of immigrants, white settlers moving into the city. Obviously it’s all colonized territory. It was originally indigenous land. But you have a lot of white settlers that flood into the city in the late 1800s, largely on the backs of industrialization. But you have Black people that filter into the city throughout the period of its early settlement. Actually, the first non-indigenous settler in the city of Chicago was a Black man. The Black presence in Chicago is literally as old as the city itself. But it’s not until the 1910s that there’s really a huge wave of Black in-migration into the city. It’s part of the larger Great Migration that really radically reshaped the entire demographics of the country. But during the 1910s and onward into the 1920s you get hundreds of thousands of Black people that move into Chicago and that’s when Chicago begins to have what we would call a statistically significant Black population.

I want to be careful to not erase the fact that there were tens of thousands of Black people living in the city before that, but it is to say that during the 1910s and 20s the Black population increases in a really, really significant way and then it does so again during the second period of the Great Migration, which really is inaugurated in the 1940s and continues on into the end of the 1960s. So it’s kind of a two-fold explosion of the Black population in Chicago, the first one being in the 1910s and 20s and the second one coming in the 1940s.

JS: Let’s back up for a moment and then we’ll come back and pick it up from the 1910s. You mentioned earlier this notion that the police force in Chicago and elsewhere, that originally it was a force organized around protecting the elites and their interests, and that it served as more of a moralistic enforcement organization. Later it would go on to be a strike breaker and then we have the racialization of police operations, where Black people start to get arrested in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers — targeted, beaten, tortured. But take us back to before the Black population started to expand. Tell the origin story of the Chicago police, the role of German and Irish immigrants.

SB: Yeah, the police in Chicago, as I said, the police department is officially founded in 1853 and the reasons why it is founded in that particular moment is that you have a large immigrant population that nativist, white people in the city just find essentially undesirable. So this is a period in history in which people of German and Irish descent and some other European populations who we would today characterize as “white,” were not really embraced as fellow white people. And so, controlling their habits and controlling their public behaviors was really of prime interest to Chicago city boosters in the mid-century. And so controlling those behaviors becomes the impetus behind putting into place a police department. And so it’s a police department that is originally pushed by these civic elites who essentially force the hand of politicians to put a police force into place, but they actually are the original funders of the police department too. So it’s literally a police department that is founded and funded by elite business owners with the express intent of controlling people who are deemed to be racialized others. And so, I think that when we think about how, now, the police in 2020 function essentially as a system of racial control, it actually makes perfect sense that we could sort of trace that lineage of how, 170 years ago, when the police department was first founded, it’s in order to control people who were deemed to be racialized others, that there’s a continuity there to what the police do, right? It’s just who they do it to is what changes.

JS: Let’s also talk about the Illinois that Black people were arriving in. You detail how some forms of slavery were legal in Illinois, despite the fact that it was in the north, that there was the equivalent of Black Codes, disenfranchisement, and forms of slavery were permitted. Just talk a bit about the conditions that Black people in Chicago or Illinois, more broadly, faced during this time of the turn of the century.

SB: Illinois is part of the United States and the United States is a nation whose history is premised in anti-Blackness, among other things. Illinois was a place that had a lot of anti-Black laws written into place. And those laws that were in place that supposedly protected peoples’ civil rights regardless of race were usually unenforced. One of the interesting pieces of Chicago’s history — and this is not an insight unique to me — I draw from the work of other people who detailed early civil rights crusades of Black Chicagoans, especially. A lot of Black political activity around the turn of the century revolves around trying to force the state and various municipalities, including Chicago, to actually follow the letter of civil rights laws that are in place and facing extraordinary amounts of reluctance on the part of officials to do anything about it. I say this as a ride and die Midwesterner, but the idea that so many people have [a view] of the Midwest and the North more broadly as a place of freedom and liberty, you know that idea needs to be pretty carefully qualified. It was a place that was fundamentally different than the South was under chattle slavery. That the South is a society completely structured around the institution of slavery but — Illinois is not a place of benevolent whites who were just willing to embrace Black people.

JS: Talk also about the rise of the south side of Chicago as what is described historically as a kind of Black Mecca with Black businesses thriving, cultural institutions, people taking over housing that had been occupied by immigrants, often taking the lowest quality houses and trying to build from that something that was viable and vibrant.

SB: The history of Chicago’s south side is one of both oppression and achievement, simultaneously. When Black people move into Chicago during the first Great Migration, options in a lot of things are limited, right? Options in housing are limited, as you point out. Options in occupations are limited. And so, it’s a city that is structurally designed to disadvantage Black people at that moment in time. And so, what that means is that Black folks generally speaking are, both because of, in some cases, their own interest of living near relatives, or friends, or other people that they know, or where their church is, and social activities are, centralized — people move to the south side partly because of those reasons — but they also move to the south side because people in other parts of the city don’t want them.

And so that takes the form, in some cases, of physical violence. So, for example, in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, dozens of Black homes and businesses are bombed as people try to move into areas that are deemed for white people only. And then that also takes the form of more systematized, legal violence. And so that takes the form of, for example, restrictive covenants that are written into housing mortgages that prevent the sale or renting of huge swaths of the city to people who are not “of the caucasian race.” And so, within that context of limited options, Black Chicagoans build. As you said, it’s a place of extraordinary Black political achievement, Black cultural achievement. And so it’s a story again that’s the duality of Black history in a nutshell of racial repression and then incredible achievement.

JS: Donald Trump and his supporters and right-wing Republicans mention Chicago, “Oh, look! They’re killing each other and look at the crime.” And one of the narratives or stories that you tell in this book that I found so striking and important for people to understand is the way in which, beginning in the early 1900s, the Chicago authorities, the police, the government, local officials — at the time it was in the hands of the Republicans, but then the Democrats would take over and they govern in perpetuity to this day — but in the early 1900s Chicago basically abandoned the “Black Belt” of the south side of Chicago and pushed the operations for prostitution, other forms of vice, alcohol, then it extends into Al Capone and prohibition, but they basically create this Levee, this is the area of the city where all of this seedy stuff is going to be allowed to take place, where people will need to go to this community to take part in it and the police are basically going to stay away from it and let the cards fall where they fall. It seems like in the early 1990s, based on your scholarship, what you’re drawing a connection between is the outbreak of crime in these overwhelmingly Black areas being linked to a systematic abandonment of those communities combined with the encouragement for organized crime in the form of prostitution, alcohol, later drugs. That would be the headquarters of it, would be where the Black people are living.

SB: Right. The logic that policy makers and police officials operate under in that moment is that, “look we’re not going to be able to prevent sex work. We’re not going to ever be able to abolish drinking, and so on, and so forth. So, what are we going to do about it?” And what they decide to do about it is that they’ll push it into places where people, because of the color of their skin, lack much political weight to do otherwise.

So, the police are pretty explicit about essentially pushing the sex trade into Black neighborhoods. During Prohibition as well, you have white mobsters who set up operations in Black communities because they know that the police just really won’t care. And so when we talk about the cultivation of vice and other forms of matters deemed criminal, whether they should be or not, it’s very much put into place along racialized lines, operating under the racist logic that we can’t get rid of these things but we can put them in places that we don’t really care about and that other people, kind of the dominant population won’t really care about. So we see that in places in the late 1800s and onward into the 1900s.

JS: Let’s talk for a moment, before we move forward in this history, of the role of the Chicago police in breaking up strikes, attacking organized labor, ultimately then Red Squads that were aimed at taking down the perceived radicals. But I think it’s important to begin with the Haymarket Square uprising. Just briefly explain when it happened and what it was about and what happened there.

SB: Yeah, Haymarket is really a seminal moment in Chicago’s history. So, it’s 1886. There’s been increasing labor militancy and demands for an 8-hour workday and better working conditions, not just in Chicago but, in the larger Chicago metro area, and also just across the country. And so, with Haymarket you have a moment in time in which people are gathered in a labor protest and the Chicago police arrive there and it’s coming in the wake of increased hostility between workers and police officers in Chicago. And what exactly happened that precipitated the events at Haymarket remains a little bit of a mystery, but what we do know is that police ended up opening fire on this crowd of workers and ended up killing a number of people, including a number of police officers through friendly fire. And so in the aftermath of this, it’s essentially a bunch of show trials that are implemented to root out the people who were organizing the events at Haymarket. And it’s essentially a moment in time that’s really important, I think, for crystallizing wider public support for the police in Chicago, especially among corporate interests.

JS: Well, as you write, the Chicago Tribune organized fundraisers for the police and the first pension program for police was organized.

SB: Right. And so when we think about the history of public support for the police, it’s through events like this where you have, again, people who are perceived to be radical agitators or outsiders who the police are called upon to repress. But again it’s people who are organizing to try to better the conditions for people who are underpaid, overworked, who work in hazardous conditions. What our perceptions of what public goods are is, I think, an important metric for thinking about what police do. We see, as you point out, the Trib and other people really pushing for support of the police in the aftermath of Haymarket when, if we actually recalibrate what we think is important, we can better understand that the police are not on the right side of that history. And I think that with the benefit of hindsight we see that, or at least I see that. But at that moment in time people failed to really connect the dots between who is on the right side of this.

JS: Yeah and in the book you mark that incident at Haymarket as a turning point that results in increased funding and equipment and militarization of the police.

SB: Right and that’s sort of a constant where you have these moments of really extraordinary police violence that could be moments of reckoning with the police power but instead result in the doubling down of peoples’ investments in the police.

JS: I want to also move to the “race riots” of 1919, but just to give people a statistic that you unearthed and cite in this book: From 1917 to 1921, 58 Black homes or residences were bombed because the residents or owners of those properties were Black people who had moved to overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. And the police did almost nothing in response to this spate over four years of bombings of Black homes where people had dared to move a bit outside of the “Black Belt.”

SB: The history of Chicago’s police department when it comes to racial violence is essentially one of protecting white interests and doing very little to protect Black life or property. It inspires some interesting historical moments. Black folks organized around these bombings to essentially begin trying to do the work that the police should technically be doing. You have local organizers that essentially try to launch investigations into who’s behind these bombings. In other words, doing what we think the police should be doing. You also have other Black people who talk about arming themselves to protect their own homes and businesses. So, embracing armed self-defense because the police won’t do the job. And we see this play out in various forms over and over again. The same thing happens in the 1940s and 50s when Black people are again moving into the city and moving into previously white neighborhoods where white people are engaged in straight up terrorism against these people when they’re moving into white neighborhoods. That includes arson, it includes turning over cars, includes beating. It’s all sorts of different terrorist methods to prevent integration of city neighborhoods. And again, and again, and again, the police fail to do the job of protecting Black life and property.

I mean in some cases, for years, you have mobs of white terrorists who try to drive Black people out of their homes. This was most famously the case at the Trumbull Park housing project and when civil rights leaders in Chicago in 1955, for example, are holding memorial rallies for Emmett Till after he’s lynched in Mississippi. They tied directly the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi to the ongoing terrorism that white mobs are visiting upon Black people in Chicago and the failure of the police department in Chicago to actually protect them from those terrorist mobs.


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So, there’s an interesting linkage that Black organizers are making between terrorism in Mississippi and terrorism in Chicago and the fact that Mayor Richard Daley, who’s newly elected in that moment, issues a condemnation of the lynching of Emmett Till but refuses to actually respond to Black demands in Chicago for the police department to actually keep Black people safe. And so it’s an ongoing thread that when white people use political violence to try to prevent Black migration and integration of white neighborhoods, that the police department just continuously refuses to actually do the job of protecting Black people.

I would just add, as one final note, that one of the responses that police officials make that is particularly galling is that when Black organizers are demanding that the police actually protect Black life and Black property in these types of moments, the police officials’ response is to suggest that Black people should put a pause on integration because having to dispatch police officers to these sites of white violence is sapping the city’s resources to have police coverage in other parts of the city. So, in other words, police officials essentially have an intellectual ranking of their priorities and wherever protecting Black life and property falls upon that ranking, it’s somewhere very low and much further down on what they see as other priorities.

JS: At the time of the 1919 “race riot,” as you document in your book, the Black population of Chicago was not yet big enough to be at the center of policing policy or at the center of public policy in Chicago. But the summer of 1919 really started to shift that in terms of the police focus. I think it’s important to just back up and remind people of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the riot of 1919. As you document in the book, this started when a group of young Black men —  kids — were in a part of Lake Michigan that was unofficially the Black section and then you had the white section not far from it. And they had gone out on a raft in “their area” of Lake Michigan and the tide starts to sweep them southward toward the “white area” of the beach and a white man on the shore starts pelting their boat with rocks and stones. They lose control of the raft. One of the young men goes under and dies. No one responds to go and get him. His friends come ashore and they approach a Black Chicago police officer and try to identify this man as being the culprit who was pummeling them with these rocks and stones and then a white officer intervenes and then that man is let go and nothing happens to him.

But that sparks — and it’s important to talk about that moment where the Black police officer is approached by these young Black men and he is overridden by the white officer — it was that response to this incident that took place that ultimately sparked what would become known as the “race riots” of 1919. So, Simon pick it up from there.

SB: You laid out pretty well what the precipitating event was. I think it’s important for people to call back to the period of 1917-1921 where there are 58 bombings. Chicago was, in some ways, already a bit of a tinderbox when this all happened. But people were pretty clear in the aftermath of these riots that ultimately killed 38 people, that the reason why it all started was really this white police officer named Daniel Callahan, it was his refusal to allow an arrest of a white murderer that really set everything off and really had set the course of events for what happened.

So over the coming days, the city essentially descends into what people call a race riot but was essentially white marauders going through mostly the Black south side, parts of the Black south side. There were other incidents in a few other places in the city, but essentially you have white youth gangs especially, more generally white mobs, terrorizing and killing Black people; and then Black people taking up arms to respond to this terrorism. So it’s not just a story of white terrorism and Black victimization, it’s also a story of Black self-defense in the face of that terrorism. But it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that people were very clear about the fact that Callahan was largely responsible for setting this chain of events in motion. You could also make the case that George Stauber, which was the name of the man who murdered Eugene Williams, was also responsible, but people said that if Callahan had allowed Stauber to be arrested, that [it’s] likely what happened afterwards would not have happened, at least not in the way it did.

JS: As you write in your book, the chief of police in Chicago cited that moment as the inciting moment and said, openly, that allowing that arrest to happen would likely have prevented it. He actually suspended the officer, but then in the end the officer goes on and has his career as a Chicago police officer. But even the chief of police noted what you’re saying, which is people were demanding an arrest. A white officer overrode a Black officer. This man was not arrested and everything followed was a result of that inciting moment.

SB: Right. And, as you mentioned, Callahan is suspended for a while. He’s later reinstated. And he’s a man who’s very proudly racist. When he’s interviewed by the official city commission that was put in place to study what had happened during the so-called riots, [he] explicitly says that if something like that were to happen again, he felt fairly confident that his fellow white Chicagoans would stand beside him, in waging this race war. It’s really striking to think about the fact that he was so willing and open in just saying it, as a matter of public record. And we can look at him as a particularly awful example of this, but he’s also, in a lot of ways, representative of the larger ideologies that shaped what policing looked like in Chicago at the time.

JS: So walk us through that decade that follows that killing in 1919 and then the riots, the rebellion, the self-determination that Black people were asserting in response to this. Because it’s a crucial decade where you have the rise of organized labor; you have the Communist party starting to become very strong in Chicago; you have a lot of worker-centered uprisings. You then have the Great Depression hit and it’s sort of the era when the Democrats start campaigning for power in Chicago and one of the central themes of their platform was “law and order,” as we now see Trump tweeting this all the time. But you also trace the genesis of that term in the Chicago political machine. So lay out what happens throughout the 20s and into the early 30s regarding Chicago police and the growing Black population of the city.

SB: In the aftermath of the riots in 1919, there’s some patterns that emerged in the study of the riots that I think are really important to understand in terms of what policing looked like. What comes out in the aftermath of the riots is that it was very clear that police were operating generally under the assumption that Black people were the criminals and white people were the victims in the riot, despite the fact that that was a total inversion of the reality. What I mean by that is, you look at the arrest records of who the police were arresting during the riots — it was very clear that the focus was trained pretty steadily upon arresting Black people. This leads to some striking things. The grand jury who’s convened to hear cases of people who had been arrested during the riots actually, effectively goes on strike until more white rioters are brought up before them because even they sense that this is a really, really striking racial disproportion in terms of how Black people are being treated during and after the riots by the police department. And that really shapes a lot of what is happening with the police down to the present day in the sense that Black people are left essentially to their own devices when it comes to having to protect themselves during that moment. So they are not offered adequate protection by the police and, also, they’re incredibly overpoliced, right? So, you have people that are simultaneously feeling all of the repressions of the police with none of the supposed benefits of it. And that’s really, in a lot of ways, the guiding thesis that animates a lot of what I trace in the book that follows.

In terms of the specific decade or decade plus that follows, it’s a really important decade politically for Chicago. And what I mean by that is: This is a period of time in which the Republican machine and the Democratic machine are really vying for control of the city and it’s during this moment, by the end of the 1920s, that the Democratic political machine that has a stranglehold on Chicago really emerges from the fray as being the political machine that’s going to control the city’s future. When that political machine coheres and asserts its dominance, it’s really disinterested and actually actively hostile to Black people because Black voters had traditionally been voting Republican. And so, at that founding moment of this powerful machine, it’s organized really explicitly around, if not anti-Blackness — although I think you could say anti-Blackness — but it’s organized really with no interest in responding at all to Black grievances or Black needs or anything like that. And that manifests in the police department because the political machine really has extraordinary amounts of control over the police.

The relationship between the two is incredibly incestuous in that Democratic politicians essentially appoint their friends and neighbors and family members to positions on the police force. You get people that have essentially no qualifications for the job other than just knowing the right people and so the Democratic machine totally distorts and twists the demographics of the police force and how the police actually operate to the advantage of white neighborhoods and the disadvantage of Black ones. And this is a story that continues to unfold and manifest over time in the coming decades. And part, also, of what the Democratic machine is doing during that moment, as you point out, is asserting “law and order” over, again, people who are, as we saw back in the context of Haymarket, people who are deemed to be politically radical. And that manifests most strikingly in the ways that it treats and responds to Black communist organizers on the south side. Again, this is in the emergent, early years of the Great Depression. The Communist Party is extraordinarily active on Chicago’s southside and it’s really, really active in terms of battling austerity measures that the city is putting in place. And where this takes shape most clearly is in anti-eviction organizing. And so, you would get landlords who are booting people out of their homes when they can’t make rent and when they are doing that, it’s the sheriff’s department and oftentimes police officers who are helping them do so — who are arriving at the scene to help essentially just take all their peoples’ possessions and essentially just leave them on the curb.

And so what communist organizers do is essentially mobilize fleets of people to go into these homes and once the evictions have been completed, they just take all the possessions and put them back, and essentially move people back into their own homes. And so it’s a fairly radical denial of the state’s authority to make people houseless, but it’s also a rejection of the police’s authority to aid in that process. And so the police engage in really, really increasingly hostile confrontation, and eventually violent exchanges with these organizers, and so that leads to, oftentimes, police killing people who are trying to prevent evictions from happening. But also this police repression then has the counter effect of actually driving up a lot of public support for these organizers who are doing this anti-austerity work. And so you have tens of thousands of people out in the streets after the police kill three Black communists in one of these anti-eviction events. So you have tens of thousands of people out in the streets, paying respects to these men who have been killed. You have people hanging the mayor in effigy in protest to police brutality. It’s a moment in which the police power is asserting itself to control Black radical organizing but it’s also a moment in time in which there’s some pretty astute and important resistance to the assertion of that authority.

JS: Yeah and as you point out in the book, and so much of your book is incredibly relevant to the moment that we’re living through right now, you point out that during this period, leftist organizers, communists, and others begin to interweave the struggle, the anti-racist struggle, with the anti-capitalist struggle and then the state’s response is often overwhelming force and brutality. You start to see a spike in police torture of, particularly of Black men while they’re in custody and you had the formation of the Red Squad. And among the tactics of the Red Squad that you document in the book was ramming police vehicles into crowds of people.

SB: As a historian, watching what’s unfolding now, I mean I just saw this morning or yesterday the video of the Detroit police officer ramming his car through protesters and it’s striking to me all the parallels that exist, which is not to say that everything remains static from the 1930s to now, but the degree to which it rhymes and the way we can see the past playing out in the present is really striking.

But yeah, the Red Squad, which is essentially the “anti-subversive” squad is initially put in place to deal with political radicals. So it’s a wing of the police department that is explicitly tasked with controlling politically radical groups and individuals, but uniformly, who are deemed politically radical, are essentially left-wing individuals and organizations. I’ve been in the Red Squad’s files and they’re really striking in a lot of ways and they’re very incomplete because the police department destroyed a lot of them before they were actually turned over to the Chicago history museum. But, what’s striking about them is the degree to which you will find very, very little evidence that they had any interest at all in white terrorist organizations or white supremacist groups. Although it’s founded to combat “political extremism,” really it doesn’t take very long at all for them to train their focus very very heavily on Black organizers and Black organizations. And, I think part of that is because, as you point out, a lot of the Black organizing that is done is a fundamental critique of the very organization of the city itself. I mean that it’s not just about racial predation and battling white supremacy. It’s also about the various ways in which that predation and white supremacy manifests itself in material forms in the city, too. Black organizers are challenging the ways in which, structurally, the city is arranged in ways that disadvantage Black communities. I think that part of the explanation for why the Red Squad was so interested in Black organizers was because the Red Squad themselves understood, and members of the Red Squad and leaders of the Red Squad understood that Black critiques of the ways that Chicago was arranged had very, very deep implications for the ways that the city would be able to operate.

JS: Of course in the 1920s, you had this resurgence and interest around the Ku Klux Klan among white supremacists and of course it also existed in the north, but extending all the way into the 30s and 40s, the relationship between the Chicago police and white vigilante actors or groups.

SB: There’s an interesting and deep, if somewhat difficult to find in the archives, relationship between the police force and hate groups. I had some brief Twitter exchanges with some other scholars trying to figure out if people had done much research on this and it seems to me like most of us have just had a hard time finding much in the archives. But what I have been able to find is really telling. The most striking moment for me is, in the late 1960s, there’s a cell of Ku Klux Klansmen who are Chicago police department officers and who are recruiting within the police department to try to expand their ranks. And what I found really striking about it, besides the fact of their existence, was the fact that they were apparently doing this recruiting for about a year before they were outed and ultimately fired. And the reason that they were ultimately outed and fired was because a Black police officer got wind of what was going on and finally reported this activity. But what that means is that, for a year, Klansmen were organizing within the police department among white officers and no one reported it. And I think that that in and of itself is really telling in terms of how just accepted as the norm this sort of thing was, even if it was an unspoken reality. And the things that these Klansmen were talking about doing was crazy. Essentially what they were plotting to do was to assassinate a number of high ranking officials in the city and essentially get “Black militants” blamed for it. And their explicit goal was to incite a race war. And so, again, when we think about how we know now that white supremacists have been exploiting this current moment to essentially — in some ways attacking cops — essentially to get Black Lives Matter protesters blamed for it as inciting this violence. And so it’s again one of those interesting parallels from how the past rhymes with the present.

JS: There’s an extraordinary document that you cite in the book from 1951 from the Civil Rights Congress. They delivered a petition to the United Nations Genocide Convention — this is 1951 — under the title “We charge genocide: The historic petition to the United Nations for relief from a crime of the United States government against the Negro people.” The document, you write, “gathered evidence of the murders of American Blacks and the abuse, harassment, and terror unleashed on them in the years since World War II: “Once the classic lynching was the rope,” activists wrote, “now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American, the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”” Give the context for this document. Who wrote it and what was happening at that moment?

SB: Yeah. I mean, so, it’s a really powerful document, I mean, and it’s just a little bit — I mean it’s overwhelming in its evidence.

JS: Just to clarify, this document — this is Black organizers charging the United States at the United Nations with, effectively with genocide because of the conduct of the police in cities like Chicago.

SB: It’s partly about the police. It’s not only about the police. So the context behind it is that the years immediately after World War II is a period of incredible racist violence in the United States. You have a lot of returning Black servicemen who come back and the image of Black men in army uniforms so enrages many white supremacists that Black servicemen are straight up lynched in uniform for the crime of wearing their uniform. Because it was a refutation of the logic of white supremacy. And so, you have that factoring into the “We charge genocide” document, but they were also very, very concerned about the ways in which police both abetted that racist violence by not doing anything about it but also contributed directly to it. So, the “We charge genocide” authors documented the ways in which police officers from Birmingham to Chicago were actively contributing tothe murder of Black people. And so it’s a really, really striking document that had the resonance that it continues to have is pretty remarkable. And actually there’s a coalition of young Black activists in recent years in Chicago that actually organized themselves under the masthead of “We charge genocide” and went and testified to the United Nations again about police violence in Chicago and elsewhere. And so it’s one of those documents that is sort of depressingly relevant to our current time. When we look at these overwhelming lists and accountings of Black people killed through state violence, just in recent years, the “We charge genocide” document is the 1951 equivalent to those accountings and it’s really a pretty incredible document.


Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition

JS: I want to make sure we get to more contemporary history, but I really do think that there’s a utilitarian value for all of us to hearing the stories that you’ve documented in this book to understand how we got to where we are today. And just one other historical episode I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned earlier the murder of Emmett Till. He was of course lynched in August of 1955 and his mother basically had to smuggle his body back to Chicago and put it on public display so that the world could see what happened to her child. It was during that period when activists began to refer to Chicago as “Little Mississippi.” But I want to talk about the significance of what Emmett Till’s mother did with that action by taking her son’s dead body, after he was lynched, and then putting it on display in Chicago for the world to see what happened to him.

SB: Yeah, it’s a really important moment in our nation’s history. What it meant is a pretty sprawling question, but I would say what it meant most directly was that it had the effect of activating new people into activism that had not previously been politically active. A lot of people who were young members of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and the 1960s referred to themselves as the “Till generation” because they talked about how when they saw the image of Emmett Till’s brutally mutilated body they saw someone who could have been them, is essentially how they talked about it. And so it had this really important catalyzing effect on people to become more politically engaged and then those were the people who would go on to really change the world in a lot of ways through the activism that they waged in the late 50s and onward into the 60s. So I think that the most important effect that it had was kind of that catalyzing impact that it had on a lot of people to become active.

JS: I want to get to just briefly the sections of your book where you talk about the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton. But before we do that, by the mid 60s, you write that “the Chicago police department was supported politically by members of both major parties, was flush with cash and possessed extraordinary power and autonomy.” How did the Chicago police department ultimately gain and grow its political power, which endures to this day, starting in the mid-60s.

SB: Well, it’s a bit of a complicated question but the answer, in a lot of ways, comes back, I think, to a general acknowledgement by white people in positions of power essentially seeing that the police were going to be an effective form of racial control and deeming that a worthwhile project. So, what I mean by that is that there’s all of this momentum in the 1960s to really lobby for increasing police power. So the police department in most of the 1960s is overseen by a guy named Orlando WIlson and Wilson is one of the most esteemed criminal justice minds when he’s hired as the superintendent of the CPD. He’s actually brought in in the wake of this enormous corruption scandal in late 1959 that makes headlines in the 1960s where Richard Daley is forced to fire his police superintendent and bring in someone who can fix the department. But what Wilson does is he modernizes and professionalizes the department, but he also makes pretty explicit the ways in which the police are going to be instruments of racial control. And it’s interesting because he’s held up as a racial liberal, and by all accounts in terms of his public comments and things like that, he appears to have been somewhat liberal, I guess. But, there’s a really striking document that I found in his papers, which are housed at Berkeley where he makes a very explicit argument for an increased budgetary allotment for the police department so that they can hire more people based solely and explicitly on the fact that Chicago is getting Blacker. So essentially, they use predictive modeling of population growth to say, “Look, Chicago is going to get X percentage more young Black people coming into the city for the remainder of the 1960s and so we need an equivalent budgetary increase to hire more police officers.” And it’s an argument that works spectacularly. By that moment in time, someone like Orlando Wilson can tell public officials to jump and they’ll just say “how high?” I think that is in a lot of ways because there is a broad recognition that by that point in time, in the 1960s, the police department generally speaking is an institution whose attentions are focused overwhelmingly on controlling Black people and Black spaces. And by that time, white people just sort of assume that that is the legitimate reason for the police to exist. The police, by that point in time, are really, in a lot of ways, just deciding to no longer operate much in white communities. By this moment in time, white arrest rates are declining quite rapidly. And that remains true until this day. I mean it’s statistically extraordinarily difficult to get arrested while white in Chicago now. And it’s during that moment in time where police repressions and police attentions are focusing increasingly and overwhelmingly on Black parts of the city. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that is when the budgetary allotments begin to explode because that’s seen as a legitimate police function.

JS: And in the midst of this scene that you’re describing, you have the emergence of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. Talk about their efforts to curb violence in their community, but also to confront the Chicago Police Department and it ultimately culminates with the assassination of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December of 69. But talk about the rise of the Black Panthers and the response of the Chicago police and power structure during the 60s.

SB: The Panthers are famously founded in the Bay Area in ’66, and they’re late in coming to Chicago actually. It’s not until 1968 that there’s a formally chartered chapter there of the Panthers. But during the year or so when they were really, really politically active in Chicago, really just saw some extraordinary achievements on their part. I mean the Panthers are really misunderstood in American history. And Chicago is sort of a classic example of what they did. When we’re talking about curbing violence in the community, what the Panthers were really concerned about was curbing structural violence. So, through the implementation of things like a free breakfast for children program in Chicago, free community health clinic for people whose health needs were not being met, free programs to bus family members to visit incarcerated loved ones down state. I mean these are all programs that the Panthers in Chicago put into effect with pretty remarkable success. And they were also really concerned with building cross-racial alliances and solidarities with other organizations. So this included working with white organizations, with Puerto Rican organizations, to really try to identify common points of structural oppression and violence and try to figure out ways to mitigate them. This included things like police violence and police brutality, of course.


Police Attacks on Protesters Are Rooted in a Violent Ideology of Reactionary Grievance

When the Panthers are organizing alongside comrades from other organizations, in 1969 particularly, the level of state repression that is visited upon these efforts is overwhelming. The assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark is really the culmination of a year long violent campaign that the Chicago Police Department, with the assistance of the FBI, waged against the Panthers. The Panthers’ headquarters are frequently raided; supplies that they’ve acquired to feed kids in the free breakfast for children program are burned by the police. And it’s just a period of increasing hostility and aggression and violence that the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are sort of the culminating point of. And the murder of Fred Hampton, especially, who was widely identified as one of the most promising political organizers not just in Chicago but in the country. And he’s only 21 years old when he’s assassinated. But it’s a tragedy for a lot of different reasons. It’s not primarily a tragedy politically, but the political components of the tragedy really are couched in the fact that the things that he was able to do were really seeing some significant successes in the city. And the Panthers, in a lot of ways, are gutted by the assassination of Fred Hampton. I want to be clear, though, that the story of the Black Panthers in Chicago doesn’t completely end with the assassination of Fred Hampton. And again, the reason I want to be careful about that is I think that there’s important stories and lessons about the aftermath of his assassination that have relevance for right now. So in the wake of his assassination, there are dozens of organizations that are founded across the city, inspired by his memory, to really try to confront police brutality as it exists, primarily in Black and brown communities. And the Panthers continue to be parts of those efforts and I think the most important initiative that came out of that was, in the early 70s, what’s left of the Black Panther Party in Chicago organizes a citywide coalition to fight for community control of the police.

And what community control of the police looked like has a whole variety of different components, but part of it was exactly what it sounds like in terms of not necessarily abolishing the police, but radically reimagining the police, decentralizing the police and essentially neighborhoods having control over what policing looked liked within their particular neighborhoods. But I think that the really important component to what community control looked like in the eyes of that coalition is what we would today identify as defunding the police. So again, they’re not calling for outright abolition of police, but they are saying, at that point in time, the Chicago Police Department’s budget  had grown to over $300 million a year — it’s now $1.7 billion a year — so when they looked at that $300 million budget line for the Chicago police, part of what they were calling for with community control was to take a significant portion of that investment in the police and putting it into other things. Putting it into schools, putting it into job training, putting it into community health, and so on and so forth. So when people today talk about defunding the police as being this entirely new concept without historical precedent, it’s not true. I mean the specific nomenclature may be new, but it’s actually an idea that is at least half a century old.

JS: Finally, Simon, from all the scholarship that you’ve done, deeply looking at the history of the Chicago police, primarily up to 1970, what are the big takeaways from your research that you can share with people to understand the way that current police forces operate and their relationship with Black people, Black property, Black communities?

SB: So, I think that there are a number of important takeaways. I think that the first one that people should be thinking about is that the fundamental premise that the police exist and the police were brought into existence to “protect us” or keep us safe, that’s a myth. The police in Chicago and elsewhere were first put into place in order to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchies. And so, when we think about the ways in which police forces currently operate, if we know that as the founding story of police, I think that the way that they operate makes a whole lot more sense. Because they’re essentially continuing to do now what they were founded to do, which is to protect capital and to protect racial hierarchy. And so I think that’s the first big takeaway. The second big takeaway is that when we think about the problems of policing and why policing doesn’t work, at least doesn’t work the way people like to think it does, when we look at how Black communities like Chicago’s experience policing, it’s a two-sided story. So on the one hand, it’s a story of being overpoliced, of being subject to constant harassment, constant surveillance, constant violence, including torture. All of that happens while, at the same time, Black communities do not actually experience much in the way of supposed public safety. So when we think about communities that are the most subject to intercommunal violence, the communities that are the least safe, they’re also the communities that are also the most overpoliced. And so it raises the question of: What’s the point? And people like Trump and others enjoy looking at Chicago’s gun violence and saying, “Well, look at that gun violence. This is why we need police.” But actually, when we look at Chicago’s gun violence and the long history of it, the fact [is] that the Chicago Police Department almost never is able to arrest people who commit homicides. The clearance rate for homicides in Chicago is below 20 percent. Really what the story is is that policing doesn’t work. That if this gun violence is so relentless and so untethered to actual police presences, it’s actually a total refutation of the idea that policing works. So that’s the second big takeaway that I would say — and, if I’m just going to do a list of three, I would just say that people who are out in the streets or who are sympathetic to calls to defund and abolish, I think it’s important to understand that we are part of a long lineage of people who have struggled with and rejected the legitimacy of police power as it exists and as it is visited upon communities of color in the United States. That people who are out in the streets right now calling for defunding and abolition, or people who are contributing financially to those causes and things like that, it’s part of a tradition of protest against police violence that has been going on for longer than any of us have been alive.

JS: Well, I have to say, this is, this is an extraordinary piece of work that you have assembled here and I really hope that people pick up this book. And while it is published by an academic press, it is remarkably accessible and that’s to your credit. Simon Balto, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.

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